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Milwaukee Program Teaches Parenting Skills to Dads - Including those Behind Bars

Dennis Walton, Jr.
Dennis Walton, Jr. of the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative tells clients about his own struggles and successes as a dad.

Across the nation this weekend, many families will celebrate Father’s Day.

Dads play an important role in their children’s development. Some fathers need coaching because they didn’t have a role model.

Credit Dennis Walton, Jr.
Dennis Walton, Jr. of the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative tells clients about his own struggles and successes as a dad

A local program, the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, teaches parenting skills to fathers who need them. In some cases, the instructors go behind bars to do their work.

Twice a week, more than a dozen men in orange pants and gray T-shirts sit at stainless steel tables, which are bolted to the floor. They’re inmates at the Milwaukee House of Correction in Franklin, and they’re taking a class on parenting skills. Their instructor is Lewis Lee of the Fatherhood Initiative.

Some of the men are serving time for drug or gun crimes. Lee is able to tap into the inmates' sensitive side by asking about their kids’ first moments. The men laugh as they share stories of cutting the umbilical cord – or chickening out. One young man describes squeezing the hand of his baby’s mother, as she went through labor. He says after his daughter was born, he cried, then passed out candy cigars to everyone he could find in the hospital.

Articulating such moments was not easy, at first, for 36-year-old Antoine McGregor. He says he was “kind of nervous about sharing some intimate things” when he first started the class. But the father of six says the class has eased him into exposing his feelings.

“As the weeks went by, I got more comfortable with everybody, and I think that will work the same way with my kids. The more and more I start seeing them, have more conversations with them, the better it’ll be,” McGregor says.

Instructor Lee tells the men it’s important to communicate with their children when they visit or call, and to say “I love you” at every opportunity.

Dennis Walton, Jr. is co-director of the Fatherhood Initiative. He says the skills the men have -- or lack -- depend on what they saw when growing up.

“Was your father in the home? If he was, was he a man who loved you? Was he a man who was negative? Was he a man who drinks? Was he a man who went to church? All of those things play a factor into the father that you become today,” Walton says.

The Fatherhood Initiative does more than offer parenting classes. For instance, it also helps men find jobs so they can support their children.

“When we look at our communities today, a lot of it is unstable because men are not present. So if we can share our stories with other men who feel helpless or feel hopeless, we know that we’re doing something that’s really going to benefit our community, overall,” Walton says.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was one of the program’s founders a decade ago. He says he saw the need, in part, based on his own experience.

“Having my dad around was key. It wasn’t that he was taking me on all these fishing trips, or he wasn’t giving me all this money or a car. Just the fact that he was there was really important to me,” Barrett says.

Clifford Shurn agrees, a father’s presence is key. Shurn says the Fatherhood Initiative has shown him new ways to contribute to the lives of his five children.

“I was one of them guys who always thought, man, I need to have money to spend time with my kids. But they really just want you there,” Shurn says.

Shurn says the younger children are delighted going to the park with him, or having him watch, as they jump on a pogo stick. He appears pleased – and a bit surprised – that such simple activities bring him just as much pleasure.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.